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Review: Better Call Saul

How much does a prequel really have to offer audiences? AMC is aiming to find out with Better Call Saul, the story of how Walter White’s shady attorney became…Walter White’s shady attorney. Clearly banking on the Breaking Bad fandom, the show’s aiming to keep viewers coming back to AMC for another go, and this week, the pilot aired over two nights, trying to take advantage of the big audience for the Walking Dead premiere. The question of what happens next is a bit up in the air, not least because ratings dropped by half between the two episodes.

Viewers already know that at some point, mildly shady attorney Jimmy McGill turned into the sleazy and well-connected Saul Goodman. AMC thinks viewers want to see how they got there, and they’ve harnessed Bob Odenkirk to reprise the role. But, as with Gotham, there’s an obvious problem: We already know how the story is going to end. That means that viewers either have to be invested enough in the characters to follow them wherever they go, or intrigued enough in their journey to stick around for Better Call Saul.

The show was originally envisioned as a half-hour comedy, in what would have no doubt been a snarky, sharp, somewhat dark series that also harnessed the ridiculousness of the early years of Jimmy McGill. In keeping with Breaking Bad, it might have retained somewhat undersaturated, almost bleached visions of the landscape and suburban decay, placing us in a strange underworld where everything seems slightly muted, which makes the outsized characters stand out even more.

But it evolved over time, turning into an hour-long drama, and by all signs, it’s going to be dark. Breaking Bad was about how people can fall into crime in unfortunate circumstances and get sucked into a dark underworld that they have to fight themselves out of in search of redemption. Better Call Saul is about how an attorney in the early years of his career breaks bad, turning into a dark man who goes beyond sleazy and into actively sinister. That makes for a very different narrative and a markedly unique style and feel.

The two episodes we’ve seen thus far haven’t provided much insight into where the show is headed, because they were a bit all over the board — an accomplishment considering that there were only two of them. That’s worrying for the future of the series, as the short seasons used on cable leave limited room for mistakes, and it’s clear that the show hasn’t settled into itself. It may have nailed the Breaking Bad aesthetic, with the same beautiful, creepy, almost lonely vistas, but it’s not quite there yet in terms of characters and stories that gel together to create a cohesive whole.

On the surface, this should be simple. We witness Jimmy McGill as he comes up with a variety of devices — including scams, tacky ads, and more — to attract and keep clients. The relatively new attorney can’t seem to keep a client, and as time goes on, it becomes clear that where he excels is criminal defense, and the handling of cases connected to a variety of extremely murky underworld activities. By Breaking Bad, we know that he has deep connections in dark corners of the community and beyond, that he has almost no legal ethics remaining to bind him, and that he’s less attached to guilt or innocence than he is to money.

Better Call Saul as a comedy might be a humorous look at how one man slid into darkness, but as a drama, it’s almost less appealing. Drama presupposes that his path is mapped out for him — something which we intellectually understand, but would still like to see floated as a possibility, rather than being set in stone. It also means that viewers will be plunged into a sense of unrelenting darkness — and they might appreciate a break after Breaking Bad.

Lighthearted comedy can come with a sharp edge, but drama can also come with macabre humour. Better Call Saul may decide to walk that tightrope to become a layered and emotionally complex production that doesn’t stick with one-note presentation. Certainly that was true of Breaking Bad, which wasn’t afraid to crack jokes now and then, illustrating that Vince Gilligan knows how to balance his comedy and drama effectively. In Better Call Saul, we also have an chance to see a range of characters that come and go over the course of the series as he moves through different cases, which offers tremendous opportunity for a wide assortment of dramatic range, from the bizarre to the frivolous to the seriously dark.

We’ll also undoubtedly see plenty of easter eggs for Breaking Bad, which will have to be laid out strategically over the course of the series to pace it out effectively. Better Call Saul faces the problem of many prequels, bound as it is to the narrative of the show and universe it’s following: At some point, the show will need to connect with Breaking Bad, and when it does, its arc is over. Gilligan and the creative team have no doubt planned the course of the show carefully with this in mind, but AMC may not necessarily choose to renew the show through the number of seasons needed for the tale to play out.

If that’s the case, Saul could be left hanging, with audiences wondering about the crucial parts of the story they never got to see. It might seem like a downer to be considering these issues so far in advance, but in the unpredictable world of television, being hopefully rarely pays off — and being realistic about the prospects of a programme is common sense.